Lemn Sissay: ‘It has been a difficult journey at times, but it has also been great’

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What made you want to write this book, for this audience, at that time?

I really wanted to write a fun book, but honestly, it was about a kid who had an experience like mine. It’s not going to help sell the book, but I’ll tell you it’s about a kid who has no birthday or no family on his birthday.

These could be quite heavy themes for young children.

So how do you make it still fun, still a trip? I wanted to be able to say that in fact, this experience is beautiful to find what is important in life outside the family. Gosh, now I’m deconstructing it! But it’s true. It’s a boy, it’s his birthday and he has nowhere to go. Without being morbid, it’s me. I found the most difficult days were my birthday and Christmas because they reminded me of everything I had ever had. And it was also in my adult life – so I don’t just look back and date my childhood. But I’m fine. It was a difficult trip at times, but it was also great. So how do I turn this boy from loss to joy?

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How did you and illustrator Greg Stobbs meet?

We are good friends now. He was the illustrator for a show I called warrior poets, and made a picture called many houses. I get goosebumps thinking about it. When I saw him, I just thought: this is my domain – child in care, blah blah blah – and he knows it. Whether he lived it or not, he is a listener, an artist. I could not have imagined this image, but I can never forget it now. The illustrator works the magic. Sometimes I think the words get in the way of the poetry of the play.

Are you eager to join the canon of children’s authors?

I think children’s authors are the most rock’n’roll of all writers. I saw the poets – I have a series on Radio 4 at the moment on the rebel poets. I have seen serious novelists who lock themselves in and only come out when the book is published. And I also saw children’s authors. I’m talking about Jacqueline Wilson, Michael Morpurgo, Michael Rosen, Mallory Blackman. They change ideas and introduce new ideas about what it’s like to be a child. Enid Blyton’s days are long gone – although I loved her books and read them all. They are the real rock’n’roll stars of literature.

So what’s the next step?

Drafts of this book are going to be exhibited at the Foundling Museum in London as part of an exhibition which I inspired and which is called Comics, origins and superheroes. It will include illustrators from around the world who are adopted, orphaned or who were in children’s homes. Because Superman was an adopted child himself.

And I recently found out that they are going to continue the Lemn Sissay Law Fellowship after I leave as Chancellor of the University of Manchester in July. It’s about expanding opportunities to people who wouldn’t otherwise have them, bringing more black people into the law. They will become solicitors and barristers – and it will save lives. I’m so honored to have my name on it – because Black Lawyers Matter.

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